Last Friday I asked this question of Andrew Roberts, whose one volume biography “Churchill: Walking with Destiny” has been described as the best single-volume life of Churchill ever written. It is marvellous to be able to question someone who had actually read all Churchill’s school reports. On a broader front, Roberts had the benefit of recently released documents, including being the first Churchill biographer to be given unfettered access to the whole of the Queen’s late father King George VI’s wartime diaries. What did the King know, you may wonder? The whole lot, it seems. Churchill had an audience with the King every week during the entire war, and told him everything that was on his mind that week, including every single secret: the plans for D day, secret actions abroad, everything. The King wrote it all down in his diaries. Why was Churchill willing to disburse himself thus, when they were not exactly soul mates on many matters, including the Abdication? Churchill said he spoke to the King because he was the only man in Britain who was not after his job. He also judged, correctly, that the King would keep his trap shut.
I asked Andrew Roberts the question because so many people, possibly to attack the notion of intelligence or scholastic ability being predictive of later life success, revel in the notion that Churchill was a dunce at school. The moral of that story, it would seem, is that dunces rise as far as swots, so damn the swots, and exams count for nothing.
Was Churchill really no good at school?
Answer: he was in the top third of his class in all subjects, and towards the top in History and English. He was also a rebel, which caused him trouble, but was to stand him in good stead in his later political life.
Roberts writes (pages 16 following):
It is rare for anyone to depict themselves as less intelligent than they genuinely are, but Churchill did so in his biography “My Early Life” in 1930, which needs to be read in the context of his colourful self-mythologizing rather than as strictly accurate history. His school reports utterly belie his claims to have been an academic dunce. Those for St George’s Preparatory School in Ascot, which he entered just before his eight birthday in 1882, record him in six successive terms as having come in the top half or top third of the class.
Churchill was regularly beaten as St George’s, but this was not because of his work – his History results were always “good” “very good” or “exceedingly good” – but because his headmaster was a sadist described by one alumnus as “an unconscious sodomite” who enjoyed beating young boys on their bare bottoms until they bled. Ostensibly the reason for these fortnightly beatings derived from Churchill’s bad conduct, which was described as “very naughty” “still troublesome” “exceedingly bad” “very disgraceful” and so on. “He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere” wrote the headmaster, but “He has very good abilities.”
Churchill’s stay at St Georges was one long feud with authority. Churchill’s very good abilities included an excellent memory. He learned his Latin first declensions by heart.
His capacity for memorizing huge amounts of prose and verse stayed with him for life, and would continue to astonish contemporaries well into old age. Many were the occasions that he would quote reams of poetry or songs or speeches half a century after having learned them.
He was drawn to long Shakespeare soliloquies, but also to much of the repertoires of popular music hall performers. At his next school, in Hove, Churchill read voraciously, especially epic tales of heroic, often imperial, adventures. He came first in Classics, third in French, fourth in English, and near or at the bottom of the entire school for conduct. He remained unpunctual all his life.
Churchill claimed to have not learned any Latin or Greek at Harrow, but his school reports show that that was untrue. Furthermore, at fourteen he got a prize for reciting without error 1,200 lines of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. He could quote whole scenes of Shakespeare’s plays and had no hesitation in correcting his masters if they misquoted.
Why did Churchill underplay his abilities? The answer is simple: if you boast about your abilities people will hate you; if you claim to be a fool they will be charmed by your modesty and by the abilities they detect in you. Always help the voter believe himself to be brighter than he is.
Does this false modesty explain why palpably clever people often claim to be not much different from the average? Probably. Whenever some famous figure in science tries to cheer us all up by confessing that they failed at school, or developed very late, I wonder if they are simply showing that they are clever enough to realize that the clever thing to do is to avoid being judged “too clever by half”.
In the spirit of empirical enquiry, we should request their entire series of school reports, and any further test results and higher education achievements. Without those we have no need to believe stories simply designed to make us feel good.